First Genome-Edited Babies? - Hit & Run

Gwen Vasquez
November 27, 2018

With genomics becoming more widely discussed as a scientific and social topic in recent years, He's gene-edited babies have ignited controversy on Chinese social media. Twin girls were born a few weeks ago, purportedly protected from HIV when CRISPR disabled a gene that would otherwise allow HIV to enter their cells.

The university issued a statement after He said in five videos posted on Monday that he used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genes of twin girls.

The university further notes that He has been on unpaid leave since February 2018-a situation that He tells Reuters he chose himself in order to focus on his research-and calls the work a "serious violation of academic ethics and standards", Reuters reports.

A two-page signed ethics-approval document that circulated online on Monday appeared to show the experiment was approved by administrators at Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women & Children's Hospital.

Officials told Thepaper.cn that the Medical Ethics Committee in Shenzhen has opened an investigation into the experiment.

No one knows exactly how He Jiankui, on leave from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, did it. Scientists gathered in Hong Kong at an worldwide summit on human genome editing will have to wait until Wednesday to hear He describe his work in more detail. He did not report to the school or the department of biology.

The propulsive pace of technological development has put genetic science on a crash course with seemingly intractable problems of medical ethics, the desirability of designer babies, overlapping regulatory regimes and the long-term implications of tinkering with fundamental building blocks of human life.

But there is as yet no independent verification of his claims, which have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

In Canada, the research would likely have broken the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which states that "no person shall knowingly alter the genome of a cell of a human being or in vitro embryo such that the adjustment is capable of being transmitted to descendants".

Also, this type of gene editing is banned in the U.S. because the changes made in these genes can pass to the future generations, risking other genes. In the United Kingdom, editing of embryos may be permitted for research purposes with strict regulatory approval.

Two CRISPR pioneers, Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, expressed deep concern, both about off-target effects on people whose genomes are edited and on future generations.

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The U.S. does not allow gene editing in human embryos outside of laboratory research. China bans human cloning, but not specifically gene editing. "This is genetic Russian roulette".

"If true, this experiment is monstrous", he said.

Scientists outside of China have been equally critical of He's work warning that modifying healthy embryos in children was irresponsible.

Kiran Musunuru is a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal. His work has resulted in one pregnancy so far.

This effort has been widely denounced as unethical experimentation on human beings.

In it, he stated that he recognises that his work is "controversial" but that he believed that "families need this technology".

Yalda Jamshidi, senior lecturer in human genetics at St George's, University of London, pointed out that such controversial research is not necessary for preventing HIV.

Lulu and Nana whose DNA had been modified to prevent HIV infection. Other researchers are developing ways to gene-edit damaged cells and return them, repaired, into patients with sickle cell disease and other disorders. For example, we don't know how changing a human's genome can affect immunity to other diseases for future generations.

He recruited HIV-positive heterosexual couples who wanted to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to participate in the work through an AIDS advocacy group.

In general, those with one copy of the gene can still contract HIV, but there are chances that their rate of decline, when it comes to health could happen more slowly if they do.

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